Will The 2017 NA LCS Summer Playoffs Be The Most Competitive Yet?

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The stage is set. The stakes are at their highest – at least until the World Championships. Team Solo Mid, Immortals, Counter Logic Gaming, Cloud9, Team Dignitas, and Team Envy all know what’s at stake. The winner of the split gets an automatic trip to Worlds and represents North America as the #1 seed. It’s crunch time for all six teams and it’s the time where the hype starts to build. This summer playoff has the potential to be the most competitive and thrilling tournament in region history. There’s as much reason to believe in a new champion making a Cinderella run like CLG in 2015 as there is to believe the status quo of C9/TSM dominance. The key here is that there’s no clear winner in this six-pack of contenders and that’s what makes this playoff bracket compelling.

There’s still reason to be skeptical of every team’s chances at winning it all in summer. Envy looks lost when Tae-yoo “LirA” Nam’s early-game proficiency isn’t enough to help his team close games out. C9 and Dignitas have both been hit-or-miss this split; they’re taking the fight to the best teams in the League while dropping games to teams staring down the barrel of relegation. CLG is trusting a rookie jungler to deliver under heightened expectations after a trip to Worlds was all but guaranteed with Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett. The past for Immortals reads like the story of Peyton Manning’s NFL career: regular season dominance that doesn’t translate to postseason excellence. TSM isn’t exactly regarded for their pick/ban strategy and can’t expect to win on the strength of their mechanical prowess every game.

Many of these read off like nitpicks any way you spin it, but that should be expected when the lights get brighter and the prizes get bigger. Every small detail matters in the big picture. Still, there’s no reason to outright write off any of these teams from making the finals. None of these teams are a guaranteed win or loss. That’s due to a combination of premium talent and quality coaching. That’s also due to the investments and time put into improving the quality of life and competition in the NA LCS. The best-of-threes have helped to start changing the culture for players and further changes like franchising will continue pushing the envelope further.

Still, even with the quality of competition between these six contenders, there’s still a clear pecking order or discrepancies that will put some teams higher than others. Here is a brief summary of how I view the power structure of the teams heading in. I have ranked these teams based on a combination of factors, such as regular season performance, roster strength, and Worlds potential:

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1) TSM
There should be no surprise that TSM is the top-ranked team here. This is a super team with starting players who are top-five in their respective positions. When Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg and Peng “Doublelift” Yillang are on their A-game, as they were with a remarkable performance against Europe at Rift Rivals, TSM is nearly unbeatable. Whether it’s through the playoffs or as the final boss in the regional gauntlet, TSM should undoubtedly be on the way to another World Championship appearance. The road to the grandest stage of ’em all goes through TSM.

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2) IMT
This Immortals roster has almost made it look like Seung-hoon “Huni” Heo and Yeu-jin “Reignover” Kim never existed. That’s because this is a starting roster peaking at the right time. With the always reliable, sometimes overlooked, Jake “Xmithie” Puchero complimenting his team’s strengths and fueling the revivals of Eugene “Pobelter” Park and Ho-jong “Flame” Lee, IMT may finally turn in a memorable postseason outing to be proud of. It’s hard to see IMT missing another chance at Worlds with the vast improvements this roster has made from spring. If there’s one sure thing, the Dardoch-for-Xmithie swap should now be looked at as Immortals winning the lottery.

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3) C9
Get ready for the return of Top Die. Once again, Eon-young “Impact” Jeong looks to be rounding into form as we get closer to the Worlds stage. Nicolaj Jensen remains as dominant as ever while Juan “Contractz” Garcia continues to prove he’s the real deal out of the jungle. An inconsistent regular season has overshadowed an otherwise positive outlook for one of the best rosters in NA. That puts C9 in prime position to remind fans that there’s a reason this roster will continue to be a perennial contender.

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4) DIG
This may be the view of a Dignitas fan in the eyes of a KT Rolster fan: “Do not get excited about Dignitas. Do not get excited about Dignitas. Do not get excited about Dignitas.” After another sluggish start out of the gate, Dignitas has once again made necessary changes that have shown immediate improvement, this time to the starting roster. Byeong-hoon “Shrimp” Lee, Johnny “Altec” Ru, and Adrian Ma have given DIG a much needed lift. The question for Dignitas, as always, is if these new changes will produce the playoff results fans have been waiting on for years. This roster has the potential to go all the way; after all, they are the only team in the NA LCS who have a winning record against TSM this split. But if they fail to capitalize on it, it’ll be hard to see Team Dignitas as anything other than the New York Jets of the NA LCS.

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5) CLG
You may be surprised to see CLG rated this low on the heels of an 11-5 season. The truth is that if Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett were still on this roster, CLG would easily be a top three team. But with rookie Omar “OmarGod” Amin being asked to be a full-time starter, I can’t help but feel as if CLG’s chances of winning in summer have taken a huge blow. Stranger things have happened, such as C9 going to Worlds with Hai Lam playing in the jungle, but this is a lot of pressure to put on a young player on short notice. But is it time to lose faith in this team? Not with CLG’s resilient core being retained. If there’s anyone who can make this work, it’s Darshan Upadhyaha, Jae-hyun “HuHi” Choi, Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes, and Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black. They’ve won two NA LCS titles on the strengths of their teamwork before. There’s nothing stopping them from doing it again.

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6) NV
It’s time for a little brutal honesty. Even with the vast improvement NV has made from avoiding relegation in spring to a playoff appearance in summer, their chances of winning in summer aren’t great. This team lives and dies with LirA. NV hasn’t shown much ability to be able to win during the mid-to-late game in a close match. But this roster isn’t the pushover they were in spring. LirA continues to shine and should once again be a no-doubt All-Pro. Apollo Price and Nickolas “Hakuho” Surgent are a top-tier bottom lane while Yasin “Nisqy” Dincer has shown more promise for NV’s mid lane in half a split than Geon-woo “Ninja” Noh had shown in years. Though it’s a long shot to see NV win it all in summer, this is a roster that’s too talented to dismiss outright. They’ve earned the right to compete in 2018 and should have the chance to continue to develop their synergy. But right now, I view them as a scrappy underdog unlikely to make it past the quarter finals.

The bottom line: Even with my doubts considered for every team and the strengths all six have between each other, it’s not easy to predict a clear winner. Team Envy can very well defy the odds and represent NA as the #1 seed at Worlds while TSM can have a historical meltdown worse than Team Liquid’s heartbreaking collapse and miss Worlds entirely. Nothing is impossible in the world of sport and that will always weigh heavily on teams, analysts, and fans alike. We’re all in this wild ride together and we don’t know what’s going to happen until we’re in the moment.

But I sincerely hope and believe that the 2017 NA LCS summer playoffs will be the best set of playoff games that NA has ever seen. The competition is fierce. An automatic berth at Worlds is on the line. The games are about to get more serious and the pressure is about to turn up. This is the best time to be an e-sports fan and there’s no better stage than the one we’ll see in China. Get ready, ladies and gentlemen. The fun’s just getting started.

Dardoch Returns To Team Liquid: The Positives and The Negatives

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We’re still several weeks away from the offseason, but that isn’t stopping Team Liquid from making moves.

Less than 24 hours after revealing the signing of former ROX Tigers mid laner Young-min “Mickey” Son, TL tweeted this video out to announce another shocking development that no one could have seen coming:

Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett, the gifted yet problematic jungler, has come home to where he started last year. As a member of TL last year, Dardoch quickly became a star player known for his jaw-dropping mechanics on Lee Sin and Graves and hyper-aggressive playstyle. But even with his raw talent, he proved to be a problem too big to solve for TL. The incredible Breaking Point documentary paints a picture of a player determined and hungry to play at the World Championships on the biggest stage against world-class talent. But it also outlines the reason Dardoch is now on his third team this year and why Liquid ultimately released Dardoch last year.

Listening to the farewell video posted by Immortals and reading this statement from Counter Logic Gaming leaves a lot of question marks surrounding Dardoch’s LCS future. Knowing Dardoch’s feelings on the organization only makes this move even more of a head-scratcher.

TL has recommitted to a gifted player with known attitude issues that will conflict with their attempt to rebuild a healthy team environment. At his worst, Dardoch becomes a player who would get reported by his entire team if his behavior showed up in a ranked game on solo queue. But TL knows better than anyone else what they get with Dardoch on his best behavior.

The consensus on Dardoch, based on his mechanical skill, is that he’s a player who owners would give their right leg and more to sign to their roster. Because of that, owners will continue rolling the dice with him in the hope they can fix his attitude in a team environment and mold him into a mature, professional leader who sets a great example for his teammates.

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At least this move can make some logical sense in the big picture. The core of the roster that Dardoch took the NA LCS by storm with in 2016 has been maintained. With Dardoch’s playmaking ability, Samson “Lourlo” Jackson looked like a competent top laner while Gwang-jin “Piglet” Chae and Matt Elento could play with confidence in the bot lane. There should be no problem for Dardoch to adjust to this roster given he spent most of 2016 bedazzling the world with Team Liquid.

There’s also the potential for Mickey’s carry potential to be unlocked consistently with Dardoch’s proactivity on the map. An aggressive playmaker could be what Mickey needs to help him become a strong mid laner. If it helped Jae-hyun “HuHi” Choi look like a top-3 mid laner at times this summer, just think of what it could do for Mickey. Like Greyson “Goldenglue” Gilmer, Mickey has talent to be a consistent starter. Also like Goldenglue: Mickey is wildly inconsistent.

The key difference that’s made TL roll the dice on Mickey? Mickey’s potential to take over a game when he gets going. His best games with the ROX Tigers came when he was given a commanding lead. But when Mickey plays poorly, his numbers look awful. That makes Mickey a risky gambit as a boom-or-bust option out of mid lane. But pairing him with Dardoch immediately gives Mickey incredible potential.

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But even with these positives in mind, here’s where I have a problem with these moves. The original starting roster for summer is fresh off a strong 2-0 week. They were finally fun to watch because they were proactive on the map and decisively won games when they were given the advantage. This would be the time where you keep that same roster intact and see if they can build on their momentum. Instead, TL looks to go ahead and throw Dardoch and Mickey in the fire with three tough matchups against Immortals, Cloud9, and Dignitas waiting in the wings. How do you expect to create a winning culture when you don’t try to maintain some form of consistency?

That’s like watching a star runningback carve up the opposing defense in the first half on the way to a commanding lead and then taking the ball out of his hands in the second half. If a bone-headed decision like that cost the Atlanta Falcons a Super Bowl victory, then why would these knee-jerk reactions from TL work now? Why would TL make these changes now? More importantly, why would Dardoch return to an organization he doesn’t respect and an organization he knows that won’t make it to the World Championships? What part of this move makes sense for any party involved?

I understand that Steve Arhancet made these moves with the intention of giving his team the best chance to win. It’s why no owner in their right mind questioned TL’s acquisition of Peng “Doublelift” Yillang when his talent and game knowledge ended up saving TL from relegation in spring. I also understand Steve’s desire to field a roster of world-class talent. Every team owner should have the same goal of building a dominant roster like Korean powerhouse SK Telecom T1. But given the timing of these shake-ups, given the issues of inconsistency for Mickey and attitude clashes for Dardoch, how can you defend these signings?

One day, Steve will have to learn that you can’t solve every problem by throwing money at it and hoping it fixes itself.

The Nightmare Year For Team Liquid

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The collapse of Team Liquid has been a depressing, heartbreaking sight to watch. I can only imagine the pain of being a Liquid fan is exactly how Cleveland Browns fans have recently felt watching their team struggle year after year.  Like the Browns, Liquid used to field dominant squads and hosted several talented players that were fun to watch. They also fell short of the finish line one too many times, suffering several demoralizing, gut punching defeats before finally watching the years of hard work and effort go down in flames.

Liquid deserved one trip to the World Championships and at least one NA LCS title. Now, Liquid squarely sits as the worst team in the league. A star player like Peng “Doublelift” Yillang won’t save this doomed squad any more.

Part of the blame should fall on the organization. It’s hard to inspire confidence with fans when your starting roster for summer is the same roster that only collected two wins in spring. It’s also hard to boost team morale when you’ve thrown everything at the wall trying to improve your team’s standing with no positive results. Steve Arhancet has had to learn a hard lesson this year: you can’t just fix your team by throwing more money at it. Yeu-jin “Reignover” Kim came to Liquid with a reputation as one of the best junglers in the world. Now he looks like an overpaid, underperforming veteran with the worst team in the LCS. In traditional sports, the worst teams are the ones that have to overpay for talent. Those teams only get worse before they get better.

Even more damning for Liquid comes with the list of talents that have come through the organization over the years, dating back to its time as Team Curse. An organization that once had names like Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell and Eugene “Pobelter” Park should have never let them walk to other teams. It’s insane to think of the success Liquid could have in alternate timelines with a few changes at key positions. Especially in the cases of Hauntzer and Pobelter, former NA LCS champions who have been to a World Championship tournament, it reflects poorly on the organization that some of its former players have gone on to have greater success with its competitors.

To be fair to Steve, a lot of these faults come down to chance. There was no way he was going to keep every talented player he’s found under the Curse/Liquid banner when a lot of players want a guaranteed job as a starter. This isn’t the first time he’s rolled the dice on young talent. By now, he knows not to take anything for granted. Some times he’s found a superstar or a starter. Other times he’s found a bust. No one could have expected Reignover, Lourlo, or Matt to faceplant in 2017. But there are things that simply don’t come to chance.

One look at the organization during a turbulent 2016, courtesy of the brilliant Breaking Point documentary, paints a strong picture. The same issue that doomed head coach Yoonsup “Locodoco” Choi’s tenure with Team Solo Mid ultimately ends up being his undoing with Liquid. His inability to create an effective team environment and earn his players’ respect was only exacerbated by Dardoch, the outspoken yet immature star player. Look no further than the pivotal meeting between Steve, Dardoch, and Locodoco. The passive aggressive actions from Locodoco such as flicking his lighter and placing a roll of toilet paper right by Dardoch aren’t what you should expect from any decently respectful human, let alone a professional coach.

It didn’t help matters when Dardoch, like Gwang-jin “Piglet” Chae, was proven to be too valuable to replace on stage. By letting Dardoch off the hook and ending his suspension early, Liquid sent a bad message to its players and to Dardoch. If they would have stuck to their guns earlier and kept Dardoch benched, Dardoch could have properly learned that his actions have consequences and could have learned he’d have to work harder on his attitude issues to re-earn the starting job.

Instead, Liquid made it clear that Dardoch was beneath punishment because his raw talent was too significant to the team’s success. Liquid ultimately did the right thing cutting Dardoch loose but by the time they made the decision it was too little, too late. When your authority has no credibility, players have no reason to trust the process. Furthermore, when you decide to give the same two-win roster from spring a second chance to prove they can make it work, you should give that roster a fair amount of time to develop. But when your knee-jerk reaction after one day of live action gains the ire of a normally impartial shoutcaster like James “Dash” Patterson, you’ve sent an alarming message to your fans and your competitors.

If it wasn’t official after the first week of summer, everybody knows it by now: Team Liquid is an absolute dumpster fire. Are they doomed for relegation? Mathematically speaking, there’s a chance Liquid can still finish 7th and avoid relegation. But a deeper look at their summer numbers, roster instability, and remaining games make any chance of Liquid avoiding relegation a long shot. Unless Steve can find lightning in a bottle, there’s no saving this squad from playing in the promotion tournament.

While I am aware that the next NA LCS split will officially mark the end of relegations and the beginning of franchising, I don’t believe in slamming the door shut on the teams that win the promotion tournament provided it happens. How fair would it be for EUnited, Tempo Storm, Gold Coin United, or Big God Jackals if they weren’t accepted into the NA LCS after winning their way into an LCS spot while a relegated squad gets to re-enter the NA LCS as if nothing happened? Even if Liquid is allowed to franchise with the NA LCS, how would Liquid attract quality free agents to play for their team with recent history in mind? Why would any player with ambitions to play at Worlds want to play for Liquid? Why would any player think their career is in good hands with Liquid after this year?

That’s not to say Team Liquid has never done anything good or productive for the development of the NA LCS. This is not meant to smear Team Liquid’s positive contributions to the scenes. Steve Arhancet is an owner who is well-liked by his peers and fans of different reaches due to his passion and his dedication to the business. He’s a pioneer in the sense that his idea to increase competition between his players and develop talent for the LCS stage for the long-term eventually resulted in the Academy League set to replace the Challenger Series.  Even as Liquid continues onward through this nightmare season, Steve remains the calm in the storm, diligently working to do anything and everything he can to give his team the best chance to win.

Long-time veterans like Doublelift and even team owners like Team Envy’s Mike “Hastr0” Rufail have respect for Liquid as an organization and do not want to see them go away. Losing Team Liquid in the NA LCS would only crush a strong, dedicated fanbase the same way Art Modell crushed Cleveland when he moved his franchise to Baltimore. But the reality of the situation could be too heartbreaking for Liquid fans to admit when they take a deep look in the mirror. This is an organization that’s a far cry from its glory days. Liquid is too bad to compete with too many question marks about its coaching and infrastructure. But they’re too significant to exclude from franchising.

If the players on Team Liquid want to prove that their team and the organization is worth believing in for the future, it must solely be on the merit of their performance. Over the next three weeks, whoever plays for Liquid on the LCS stage must step up and play their hearts out. At this point, there’s nothing left to lose. Worlds and playoffs are highly unlikely to happen but every Liquid player should be looking himself in the mirror and asking if this is the way he wants his season to end. Come out with some fire and passion and prove to your doubters, myself included, that you can play League of Legends at the highest level and that you’re worth believing in.

Your owner said it himself. Winning fixes everything.

In Defense Of Phreak

In the previous week of NA LCS action, Riot aired a segment during its live broadcast with David “Phreak” Turley giving his opinion on the current rankings of every NA LCS AD carry that’s seen action on the rift this split. The tier list has drawn polarizing reactions from Redditors, coaches, and players.

“Never mind, just saw Phreak’s tier list. There is a new low.” – Parth, Team Solo Mid Head Coach

“what is this a joke?” – Dyrus, Delta Fox Top Laner/ex-Team Solo Mid Top Laner

Several people have been critical of Phreak’s ratings. His opinion hasn’t been well-received or regarded kindly. But it doesn’t deserve this much scrutiny.

For one thing, this isn’t Phreak’s first rodeo. He gets paid to form opinions and defend them with accurate analysis. As Dot Esports’ Aaron Mickunas explains, the tier lists will force analysts “to research and keep themselves up-to-date as possible when it comes to talking League.”  Given that Phreak himself has gone on the record to explain his thought process and defend his opinion several times on Reddit, it’s clear that Phreak did his homework and has made it clear this is his opinion, not Riot’s official view. But that still wasn’t good enough to bring the discussion to a satisfying close.

Cabramaravilla at Blitz Esports recently shared his view on the controversial list. To be fair, he provides a fair counter-point to consider in contrast with the numbers: outside elements that you can’t find on a stat sheet. His thought process looks similar to Around the NFL’s Gregg Rosenthal, one of my favorite writers who gives a fair analysis of every starting NFL quarterback during the season based heavily around a thorough review of tape. While I agree that context behind the numbers is important, I don’t necessarily agree with attributing performance to minor details like roster turnover or champion selection.

Suggesting that Arrow’s performance is the direct product of Phoenix1’s early instability at jungle and support while Doublelift wasn’t producing numbers with the resources he was given due to his pick is absurd. That’s like saying an NFL quarterback couldn’t make a routine throw because he wasn’t wearing gloves. It’s black or white with no shade of grey: They’re either performing at a high level or they’re not up to par.

If you’re looking for context with the numbers, then you should compare the stat sheets with the tape for clarity. I believe Phreak did just that and kept it in mind when forming this list. Apollo and Piglet being ranked highly is fair given that, at the time, neither of them were the main reasons behind their teams’ struggles while Arrow and WildTurtle were further down the list as a reflection of their sluggish starts despite strong performances in spring.

Now, if I’m Phreak and I’m thinking about my tier list this week, Arrow and WildTurtle would have my attention but I need to see more games before I consider making a change. Knowing that Phoenix1 plays TSM and that FlyQuest plays Counter Logic Gaming, I’ll be watching to see how they fare against two of the strongest bot lanes in the region.

For a tier list that has a fair amount of fundamental basis, research, and reasonable judgment for the time it aired to receive this much flack is nearly jaw-dropping. Where was the uproar over Caps’s tier list for EU LCS midlaners?

Where was the basis for Caps’s opinion? Does it make sense to be angry at Phreak for basing his opinion off what players have done in summer to that point and backing his argument with numbers and video, while Caps can simply say “I chose to put myself highest” and have it be taken as the gospel truth?

I can understand being upset at a tier list you don’t agree with, but I can’t understand having no concerns with a current player creating a tier list that could potentially create conflicts of interest and reek with personal bias, let alone someone who hasn’t done his homework or can’t logically defend his opinion.

That’s why we loved James “Dash” Patterson at Worlds two years ago when he forced analysts like Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles and Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi at the desk to expand and defend their viewpoints when they were challenged. Great analysts come prepared to answer almost anything and justify it with evidence. You may not like the way Phreak ranked the players, but you can’t dismiss the list just because you don’t agree with it. If he hadn’t put any effort into ranking the players with numbers and tape available for this split only, there would be plausible concern and legitimate critique. But that isn’t the case.

The most important aspect of analysis is to generate discussion. Analysis uses known facts to build a case and challenges readers to think critically with every resource available. It gets fans talking to other fans about the game and its players. It gives stories for every NA LCS team extra juice. The past week of NA LCS action and Rift Rivals have gone a long way to put a spotlight on the bot lane and it’s thanks in part to Phreak.

This is the kind of quality we should come to expect from Riot as the NA LCS continues to take steps toward legitimacy as a sport. E-sports may never be on the same level as traditional sports, but with dedicated analysts preparing developed opinions and presenting them as fact, e-sports will earn the respect it deserves.

The bottom line is that analysts aren’t supposed to have only popular opinions. Analysts shouldn’t be afraid to discuss “worrying trends” or critique player performance because that’s their job. Unpopular opinions with analysts will happen, but that doesn’t mean we should disregard their opinion because we don’t like what they have to say.

Even the most unpopular opinion that has a solid foundation in research with a well-written and defended opinion deserves a modicum of respect. Regardless of how you feel about Phreak’s tier list or Phreak himself, we should openly encourage him to continue to deliver engaging content provided he continues to form his thoughts through extensive research and thorough, sound explanation.

In that regard, I commend Phreak for doing his job and doing it well.

NA LCS: Franchising – good or bad?

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Four weeks ago, Riot officially announced that the time for franchising in the NA LCS is now. Several writers and content creators have debated the positives and negatives of Riot’s vision for the future of its professional scene. Specifically, the end of relegation – a move that marks the end of the Challenger Series and the beginning of a new Academy League – has drawn mixed opinions from fans and writers alike.

Dom Sacco of Esports News UK writes that “uncertainty is better than stability”, arguing that relegation adds an element of suspense and competition for every team involved. This is a fair point given that teams are defined by their success or failure. For example, Origen in Europe took the world by storm with a memorable EU LCS debut in the 2015 summer split, capping off their season with a strong run to the semi-finals of the World Championship as Europe’s third seed. Three splits later, Origen was relegated to the European Challenger Series after a winless spring, officially marking the worst season in EU LCS history. Relegation removes the flair for the dramatic, but as Dot Esports’ Xing Li points out, the move “should lead to better scouting and player development as teams will now have the opportunity to practice in a more structured environment than ever before.”

I’m inclined to agree with Li on this point. While removing relegation could potentially harm the amateur scene and stifle investors from spending money on a team that may be waiting years before being considered to join Riot’s organized league, the positives outweigh the negatives. There’s nothing to suggest that Riot would not expand the league to welcome more teams into the fold – a bold, ambitious task that might prove to be too costly for Riot’s own good – but the better argument to make here is to find the infrastructure to organize another league for promising young squads while working with Riot to allow those teams to earn their spot at international tournaments through the wild-card play-ins.

Perhaps ELEAGUE wouldn’t be objected to organizing a branch for League of Legends players to host a similar format to the LCS, especially considering ELEAGUE’s television deal with Turner Broadcasting. If it can host Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Street Fighter V tournaments, why can’t it do the same for League of Legends? Even if this what-if scenario was never going to be a possibility, that’s not the point. The point is, if there are people who are passionate about having a scene for the amateur players and young organizations, then take the initiative and create a league that can stand on its own compared to Riot Games.

In other words, make a new, different LCS. (With blackjack. And hookers.)

But let’s go back to the topic of the Academy League, which is a great move for Riot and the ten teams accepted into the franchise. This will allow teams to stock up on developmental prospects and take a better look at players who are serious about playing professionally. Here is an article I wrote last week on Team Liquid’s signing of Rami “Inori” Charagh that illustrates exactly teams stand to benefit from this development. The league will also give organizations valuable reserves in the events that a starter goes down due to injury, has an immediate emergency that will take his time away from the game, or has visa issues that will affect his availability.

But the most important aspect of the Academy League with franchising will be an organization’s ability to pull out underperforming starters in a lost season to give young players valuable time on stage, with the chance that those young players will earn long-term starting jobs. I’m sure Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Felix “Betsy” Edling can testify to that.

With the main league itself, teams will now have guaranteed contracts that will remain dependent on performance. Although I think the performance clause is too broad for those searching for a happy medium of turnover and longevity, that doesn’t mean it still can’t be a good idea in practice. Five splits, which is two and a half years’ worth of LCS games, is a fair benchmark for patience. All organizations will go through a rough patch and won’t find the same amount of success as years past. The rule respects those times of struggles.

However, Riot is making it clear that they will not tolerate intentional tanking or lack of effort. Teams who consistently finish near the bottom of the league will quickly be weeded out and valuable players will not want to sign with those teams in fear of ruining their chances at securing a job with a larger, more successful franchise that will take them to the next level. When the players avoid an organization like the black plague, so too will fans, meaning viewership and support will drop until the team is no longer in the league. Ask any team in major league sports and they will tell you that success drives most athletes to sign with their team.

Nobody willingly wants to be on a loser if they want to win now. But there will be the crops of players that just want to play and want to do what they can to turn the franchise around. Their jobs, and their organization’s jobs, will depend solely on their success. That’s the nature of the business and that’s the major reason why I believe franchising is a wonderful move for Riot’s long-term future. Teams will get long-term investments with a sense of security, but know they must perform in order to keep their business.

Players, in turn, will now be under a microscope from ten major organizations and will now be held accountable to a team’s success or failure. If a certain signing ends up making a team’s value drop dramatically, future teams will not look to sign that player. Likewise, if a player lights up the rift in spectacular fashion, every team will break the bank to secure that player to a contract, thinking they’ve now got the golden ticket to success. For the spirit of competition, franchising is a major improvement.

However, there are still questions remaining about the business model. The Rally Point Esports podcast does a sufficient job at illustrating the future concerns there could be down the road with the revenue share. It’s one thing that teams have to shell out $10 million just to participate in the league. But now, teams will be required to share part of their revenue (such as sponsorships or merchandise sales) with Riot. On paper, this is a fair deal considering the long-term security Riot is giving ten organizations to participate in their league. The bottom line for Riot, just like the teams in its league, is in the numbers.

The concern comes from the exact numbers that Riot will take from these teams in the long run and whether or not these numbers will allow organizations a chance to make their money back. Knowing that Riot has control over how much of a team’s share they take and how much they will give back, will investors still feel their long-term investment will be safe if Riot’s share turns out to be their biggest losses?

Organizations are already operating at a loss as it stands, which makes their income entirely dependent on sponsors, merchandise, streaming revenue, marketing, and player success. Riot controls the portion they will take from the teams, which could be potentially damaging to young organizations. I expect Riot to be able to crunch the numbers behind a team’s financial backing to determine if their organization is built to handle what Riot is building, but if Riot accepts a new organization into their league and that team can no longer field a roster after a year due to mediocre performance and low revenue, what does that say to future investors that do not have knowledge of the industry?

There is also a fair amount of concern over Riot’s player association. Again, this is an idea that’s solid on paper – Riot funds the association in its initial operation until the association has grown to a point where the players will assume full financial responsibility over the business – but the concern here comes with the representation.

As Xing Li puts it, although players can vote to reject Riot’s recommended candidates for representation, “the fact that Riot is vetting reps at all is somewhat troubling.” This could lead to a dangerous conflict of interest, such as this one with the Oceania Pro League’s Tainted Minds, where Riot was found investigating themselves and finding nothing wrong as opposed to leaving this matter to third-party investigation. This means that Riot ultimately will have control over the potential candidates, unless the news comes out that the representation was independently elected by the players. Still, this should be seen as a positive sign moving forward, and at least shows Riot’s commitment to improving the process for players in the present and in the future.

While the concerns for the future are worth a pause, fans should be optimistic heading into the future. From a pure entertainment standpoint, the potential storylines for the NA LCS are about to get even bigger with the moves being made for the future. Riot has shown they are listening to all parties involved with their product and they are slowly taking steps toward delivering the vision we all want for esports. The initial system isn’t perfect, but the vision for the future is promising and worth believing in. Riot deserves the benefit of the doubt here.

NA LCS: The fall of FlyQuest

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In my Week 4 rundown of the North American League Championship Series (NA LCS), I argued that the veteran team, FlyQuest, was the worst team in the league. After some generous feedback on Reddit (thank you, Reddit!), I’ve decided to dive back into the writing to see what the numbers truly reveal about FlyQuest’s nightmarish summer slump.

I will mainly be using these incredibly detailed stats found right here at OraclesElixir. If you’d like to follow along with me or take a view at why your favorite team is doing well, why your team isn’t playing up to par, or just to take a look at who the league leaders are, feel free to click the link and see the numbers for yourself! So, without further ado, let’s take a deeper look at the numbers!

We’ll start with the simple numbers: Kills, deaths, and assists. These are numbers that we can equate to acting like yards and touchdowns in the NFL, points scored in the NBA, number of hits at-bat in the MLB, and so on and so forth. Why? Because these numbers, while a strong reflection of individual performance, may not directly correlate with a team’s success. A team’s success in League of Legends goes much further than who’s got the best KDA – a sentiment I’m sure fellow solo queue players can share in contrast to the LCS.

Player [Position]: Kills (Rank by lane position)/Deaths (Rank by lane position)/Assists (Rank by lane position) / KDA (Rank by lane position)

Balls [Top]: 43 (5th) / 70 (1st) / 86 (8th) / 1.8 (11th)
Moon [Jungle]: 44 (7th) / 63 (2nd) / 106 (6th) / 2.4 (11th)
Hai [Mid]: 61 (8th) / 74 (1st) / 88 (7th) / 2.0 (11th)
WildTurtle [AD Carry]: 53 (8th) / 60 (1st) / 79 (8th) / 2.3 (10th)
LemonNation [Support]: 20 (2nd) / 66 (3rd) / 108 (8th) / 1.9 (12th)
Total combined K/D ranked amongst all 10 NA LCS teams: 221 (8th) / 333 (1st) / 0.66 (10th)

The first thing you’ll see right off the bat is that FlyQuest are getting killed a LOT. Some of this can be from overly aggressive playcalls that don’t work out in FlyQuest’s favor (such as this botched fight around the 12:50 – 13:00 mark in FlyQuest’s third game against Team Envy from Sunday) while some of this can be from poor decision making or ill-advised rotations. Does this mean FlyQuest need to be more passive to insure more success? No, not exactly. Counter Logic Gaming has been one of the most aggressive teams in the league this split, ranking first in total kills and second in total deaths, and are currently tied for 2nd place with Team Solo Mid at 6-2. But in the linked clip above, you’ll see that FlyQuest had a great play in mind that looked solid on paper. If Renekton’s Slice and Dice is unavailable, Ziggs secures the kill thanks to Jarvan IV’s well-timed Cataclysm. If this happens, Ziggs can logically move in to continue raining damage down on Varus and Braum. Instead, Renekton simply E’s out of the pit and moves in to stun and kill Ziggs, a sitting duck by the time Lee Sin joins the fight. From that point, it all goes downhill for FlyQuest. (By the way, if the NA coaches haven’t figured it out by now, let this game against FlyQuest be the defining example why you don’t allow Lira to play Lee Sin.)

If the play worked out as intended, FlyQuest probably continues the momentum to a 2-1 victory and we’re potentially gearing up for a competitive second half of summer split. Instead, we’re wondering what in the world happened to this promising squad and why everything has gone so wrong so soon.

So, we know FlyQuest is dying a lot and aren’t racking up a lot of kills. If you went off these numbers, FlyQuest individually are among the worst in the league at their positions. But there’s more to the game than who’s dying and who’s doing the killing. After all, high-level League of Legends isn’t anything close to Call of Duty, so there’s definitely more to this than meets the eye here. To take a deeper dive into the players individually, we’ll have to break down more of their advanced stats, such as DPM (Damage Per Minute), GD10(Gold Difference at 10:00), and DMG% (Damage Share – how much percentage of the team’s total damage is one player is responsible for?). There’s a vast amount of information to run through here, so I’ll pick a few things that catch my eye and expand my view on what I think they say about the player.

Let’s start with FlyQuest’s top lane. A sentiment I shared with Aidan “Zirene” Moon during yesterday’s LCS broadcast was that An “Balls” Le has been FlyQuest’s most consistent player. I personally argued that Balls has earned more mileage on that front. That suggestion looks reasonable on paper when taking his spring numbers into account, especially given that his champion pool mainly consisted of tanks such as Maokai, Nautilus, and Shen. The spring numbers show that although Balls is far from the player he was in years past, he still turned out to be a serviceable, if unspectacular, top laner. This would only be a problem if FlyQuest were deliberately trying to funnel resources into Balls and relying on him to carry games, but his GOLD% (Average share of team gold), EGPM (Earned Gold Per Minute), and DMG% were among the lowest during spring – which should be expected from someone who played a majority of top lane tanks.

So what’s the problem in summer? A quick look at Balls’s current champions played in summer shows mostly carries or bruisers, and only one of those champions – his signature Rumble – has something resembling passable numbers. Perhaps the meta doesn’t suit Balls’s strength as a tank player. But it certainly doesn’t help FlyQuest’s dire situation. Balls is in the bottom five for DPM (363) and has the worst DMG% (18.7%). Even worse is that Balls is regularly down in gold with the worst EGPM (226.1) and the worst GD10 (-199), meaning he is in no position to help his team carry out of the top lane. Maybe the simple solution is to put Balls back on low-economy tanks and only require him to pick the odd carry once in a blue moon. But would this really fix FlyQuest’s problem at its source or make things worse? Put yourself in the coach’s shoes and think to yourself: “Do I stand to benefit from limiting Balls’s champion pool? Maybe so, but wouldn’t teams just ban out the meta tanks and force me to put Balls on a carry? Haven’t I seen this happen before at the first Mid-Season Invitational when teams pulled this exact strategy against Team Solo Mid during Dyrus’s final season? If not, who steps up for the team?”

Well, why don’t we judge by the numbers?

You may think Hai Lam is past his prime and should rightly sit as one of the worst mid laners in the NA LCS. What you’d be surprised to see is that Hai is actually very capable of handling himself against the stacked competition. Currently, Hai is in the top five for DPM (543), DMG% (28.9), GD10 (-16), GOLD% (24), and first blood rate (21). And he’s doing all of this while having the fourth lowest EGPM (255.2). When cross-referencing those numbers with his total K/D/A on the split, maybe Hai’s just been unlucky. Maybe some of those bold, gutsy calls he’s known for haven’t worked in his favor. As of right now, the numbers point in favor of Hai still being able to play mid lane at a high level. Even when you take his spring performance into account – he’s near the top of the leaderboards in several areas amongst all mid laners who played in spring – it’s insane to suggest that Hai is past his prime. It’s almost like Hai never left.

Maybe his own comparison to Brett Favre as Cloud9’s jungler during the 2015 summer split was appropriate after all; as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, Brett Favre proved he could still play football at a high level when surrounded by young, explosive talent such as Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson. I believe the same could be true for Hai if the talent surrounding him was mechanically gifted, young, and motivated to make an impact on the LCS – three words I would use to describe FlyQuest’s jungler, Galen “Moon” Holgate.

Although Moon has more stage experience than you’d expect from a young player, take into consideration that this is only Moon’s third split as a full-time starter. His debut split with NRG Esports left a lot to be desired. He was routinely in the lower half of the league in almost every category amongst starting junglers. Take out the spot starters with less than 10 games and 2016 shows a player who wasn’t ready for the LCS. One year later, we see that Moon has made strides to improve. Some of the credit should go to FlyQuest’s veteran leadership, but let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the numbers Moon posted in spring.

2016 Spring- NRG Moon: 28 (8th) / 41 (5th) / 89 (8th); 2.9 KDA (6th), -240 GD10 (11th), 262 DPM (11th), 183.3 EGPM (11th) over 16 games

2017 Spring – FLY Moon: 158 (6th) / 105 (8th) / 240 (5th); 3.8 KDA (1st), 34 GD10 (5th), 336 DPM (7th), 225.1 EGPM (8th) over 43 games

The numbers will look skewed given that 2016’s LCS format was still under Best-of-1 rules, but the improvements can be found in the ranks. In spring, Moon was in reach of the top half of the league in almost every relevant stat. That’s a pretty big jump from year-to-year. If Moon could match those numbers in summer, he’d be a guaranteed league-average starter. Unfortunately, that’s not the case so far. Of junglers with at least 10 games played on the split, Moon has the lowest DPM (236), the third worst GD10 (-17), the second highest deaths (63), and the second worst EGPM (194.9). That’s not a good look for FlyQuest if its starting jungler isn’t able to lift the team’s performance up. Still, Moon deserves the benefit of the doubt after a solid spring. As the youngest player on FlyQuest’s starting roster, Moon deserves a fair shake to start the rest of the split and FlyQuest should trust Moon to shake off the cobwebs and get back on track.

For as much flack as Jason “WildTurtle” Tran receives for his positioning and ill-advised flashes, I still believe WildTurtle, like Hai, can help a good roster make a push for playoffs. He was far from the problem with Team Solo Mid’s disappointing finish at the 2017 Mid Season Invitational, he was still a good fit for TSM’s roster, and Peter “Doublelift” Yillang was the overall better option for TSM’s immediate future. All three of these things can be true. But no one can blame WildTurtle for wanting to be an unquestioned starter as he is in FlyQuest. As the AD carry of this squad, creep score and experience stats will provide more effective analysis here than they will for the other four positions. With every relevant stat in mind, WildTurtle is still far from the problem in FlyQuest. Among ADCs, he currently has the fifth best GD10 (49), fourth best XPD10 (91), sixth best CSD10 (0.2), second best CSPM with five other ADCs (9.0), and the fifth best DPM (516). He’s doing all of this with the fourth highest GOLD% at 24.7, slightly above Hai’s share in the mid lane.

The argument can be made that WildTurtle’s box score looks better than his tape. This is an argument worth making with the correct supporting evidence. But from a pure numbers perspective, WildTurtle is doing his job. He’s not the reason FlyQuest is 1-7 on the season. In other words, FlyQuest can do a lot worse than playing WildTurtle at ADC.

Supports are tough to judge based on the numbers. As the most macro intensive role in the game aside from jungling, reviewing the tape will say more about Daerek “LemonNation” Hart than the numbers will. But for the purpose of this article, we’ll use the limited information we can gather from the numbers to see where LemonNation sits on the season. There are positives to be found here. LemonNation has the highest DPM (268) and DMG% (13.6) among starting supports in the league. But with the worst KDA and the worst wards per minute (1.25), we can start to make an assumption from a pure numbers perspective. Taking a look at his champion pool on the season, we see that Zyra is his most played champion on the split. Zyra is a high-damage support, which explains his lead in average DPM. We can now assume with his high number in deaths and DPM that LemonNation typically goes for an aggressive play in an attempt to set up something for his team. Unfortunately, the aggression hasn’t paid off. One notable example I can immediately think of what happened in FlyQuest’s third game on Sunday against Team Envy, after the team fails to kill Seraph on an attempted pick. This point is where everything goes wrong for FlyQuest.

FlyQuest attempts to start a fight at Rift Herald around 15:23. Hai is immediately picked off by Lira in mid-rotation while Moon jumps the gun and is left to die against Apollo and Hakuho. At this point, LemonNation and WildTurtle should not be doing anything because the fight is over and the team can no longer contest Rift Herald. However, LemonNation makes the ill-advised decision to join the fight way too late with Tahm Kench’s Abyssal Voyage. WildTurtle goes along for the ride and it costs both members their lives. FlyQuest had the right idea to force the issue in the mid-game – their chances would be slim to none in the late-game with an assassin and an AP caster against Cassiopeia, Varus, and Braum due to their high damage and hard engage – but the execution was horrible. It’s almost as if FlyQuest decided to intentionally feed and throw the game when it wasn’t quite out of reach.

It’s true that the season is still far from over for this squad. But it’s going to take a superhuman effort to turn this squad around. Never count Hai out to pull off some more magic, but it’s hard to see this squad avoiding relegation, let alone making playoffs. The veteran instincts on this squad gave them their biggest edge, but just like Cloud9 a few years ago, it’s the biggest thing holding this squad back. FlyQuest could use some new blood in the ranks, particularly at top and support, while keeping their eyes on the future at mid and ADC. You never want to be ill-prepared in the event you avoid relegation or you believe you have a shot to make the playoffs. But if FlyQuest chooses to move forward with this roster, then the change has to begin with Balls, Moon, and LemonNation stepping up their play. Two of these players are arguably the worst at their position right now while one of these players’s bright spots get overlooked for his mid-game misfires.

After a magical start in spring, it’s amazing to see how far FlyQuest have fallen. If this doesn’t change now, FlyQuest fans will be in for a long season.